Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Well, well

Heard today (25 June) that YouTube has been unblocked here, so have just tried to view my blog and - I can read it at last! For the last year or more all blogs have been blocked. This has got to be another good sign in amongst many other positive signals just now.

Spoke too soon. As of today (26 June) all the blocks seem to be back on once more.



Swans and museums

I'm reading Nicholas Taleb's "The Black Swan" at the moment, and so ruminating on the ways in which our capacity to see the world objectively is limited by our tendency to imprint patterns and assume completeness, where none exists.

And this got me thinking about museums and how they define their scope. The V&A, for example, is the "national museum of art and design". But in fact it's only about SOME art and design. To the V&A the history of art and design is delineated by what it can illustrate through its collections. If it has artefacts, the narrative will expand to include them, if it doesn’t the story just doesn’t go there. So in effect, the V&A defines art and design solely by the works it holds. At the V&A the subject of/ history of art and design does not include Mayan or African work, to name but two. You will not (I believe) find a label in the V&A suggesting that there's some great stuff from other cultures that might complete your art and design perspective in the British Museum or Tate Modern; the V&A creates a self-defined landscape, wonderful but circumscribed entirely by what it collects. Which in turn is circumscribed by the collections it already holds...

Tate Modern, it seems to me, creates an even more self-nurturing paradigm, inasmuch as it lays claim to being the UK's national museum of modern art. And in collecting the works of living artists, it is defining the future history of today's art in an extremely powerful (and largely unaccountable) way. What is art, who is an artist, and what something is worth are all intrinsically bound up in the process by which the Tate selects works for acquisition and display. Tate Modern likes to suggest that a visit is an experience that opens eyes, enables people to see the world anew. I suggest that, conversely, visitors are encouraged to leave their critical faculties behind, desist from questioning and doubting, and accept that they are in The World According To Tate. What is available to them is not modern art (a representative picture of what is going on in the contemporary world) but Modern Art, in other words what the Tate says modern art should be. What "the experts" think you should see. And of course, there is an interestingly symbiotic relationship between judgements in this "non-commercial" world and values in the highly commercial art market.

It's worth reminding ourselves that London's National Gallery originally collected works which it judged "lesser art" to form an educational counterpoint to the works of the Old Masters. Due to the creeping effect that means anything in a museum is deemed of value, this interesting (if questionable) distinction has now been airbrushed away. Everything in the National Gallery is now "great art"; some of it is just held to be greater than the rest. Our capacity to apply critical judgement, to ask questions, to challenge received wisdom is neither fostered nor particularly encouraged by art museums. They create their own truths, their own terms of engagement, and we non-experts accept them, usually without question.


Thursday, June 19, 2008


No caption



The valley of the tombs at Palmyra - dusk

Taken from the citadel that overlooks Palmyra on a dusty evening.



The HBS group in Palmyra

Left to right, Brian, Charles, Aastha and Johnita.


Sunday, June 15, 2008


In London again on flying visit

Second of two very brief visits to London just completed. I'm still not getting the chance to relax with the family, as all but a few hours are spent in meetings of one sort or another. Still these do allow me to catch up a little with incoming mail - this time including a summons for jury duty, something I have never before been called upon to do, and which I have had to decline on the grounds that I am working overseas.

Daughter Kate is thriving in her job with Abel & Cole, the organic food people, and is very enthusiastic about it. It seems a great company to work for and she has, I think, lots of opportunities to develop and grow into new roles. So I'm feeling very proud of her.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The discovery centre

A rendering of the discovery centre as viewed from the south-east.


Monday, June 09, 2008


Cricket in Syria!

I suspect these may be embassy staff rather than locals, but it was nice to see this game of cricket being played not far from my apartment.
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Saturday, June 07, 2008


BBC World weather

One of the many deficiencies of BBC World is its weather reports, in particular its habit of selecting four "representative" regional cities to highlight on screen, thereby hiding most of the map. On the main BBC weather website the Middle East stretches from Istanbul and Baku in the north to Aden in the south. In contrast, BBC World weather highlights are all from places in the lower half of this spread; nowhere north of 25deg is included. BBC World tend to see Middle East and Gulf as synonymous, but it would be nice to see a bit more representative of the variety of the region in its weather report.

As an example, the four places BBC World select for North America are (almost literally) at the four corners, ie widespread. That provides a representative picture. The picture of the Middle East weather is not representative.

For the Middle East the four places - Muscat, Riyadh, Aden et al - are effectively all in Gulf states, all in the south of the region. They are not by any means the four "key" cities of the region, they would certainly include Dubai if so; they do not even cover the BBC's own definition of Middle East. No Beirut, no Baghdad, no Jerusalem, no Amman, no Tehran. For most people the world weather map is one of the few times they get reminded of where places are; this is just one more reason why too little is known about this region.


Friday, June 06, 2008


Barack Obama

Over dinner a few nights back we were discussing Barack Obama, and the very distinct possibility that he may become the next president of the USA. Just how possible was the subject of a lot of debate, as was what the effect might be on Syria and the region. Which took us onto subjects like the current peace talks with Israel and Olmert's personal problems with his pocket money.

There is, I would say, cautious optimism about Obama here among the people I speak with. The caution is of a "wait and see" nature, given that he has relatively little of a track record from which to draw conclusions, and there is a huge step between candidacy and power. The optimism is based on the possibility that the next leader of the USA may actually base decisions not on a narrow, pre-formed dogma but on a readiness to examine situations before reaching conclusions, and to understand that win-win creates a more sustainable base for lasting change. Around here, rhetoric is appreciated as a ploy, so Obama's speech to AIPAC is seen so far as the necessary pragmatics of US politics, but again "wait and see" applies. The prospect of intelligent leadership in the world, however, is something which people are looking forward to with hungry anticipation.

I lowered the tone of discussion by comparing expectations with those that we had in the UK with the arrival in power of Tony Blair and New Labour. The same rhetoric of ideals and change, a promise of a more ethical and moral approach to government and foreign affairs, a concern for society, an emphasis on the power of education to help people transform their lives. It was something we had dreamed about after years of Conservative ineptitude, cronyism and arrogance. A decade on, all the promises had been long broken. New Labour proved to be as inept, corrupt, self-serving, power-hungry, unaccountable and PR-focused as their predecessors - often more so. And Tony Blair, as happens to political leaders, became less and less interested in the mire of domestic affairs and determined to show himself off as a world statesman, with disastrous results.

So I hope Obama, if he becomes President, can hold true to his ideals and provide a new political model for the rest of the world to admire. We all want to respect America; it's like everybody's big brother, a country we look up to. And when we see it, as it is now, acting as a selfish bully just because it can, we look away, ashamed for it and for us. Obama seems to offer an America that will believe in its power to do good, its power to persuade, its power to lead, its power to set an example. Not its power to threaten and destroy. Not its power to coerce by sheer might. So I am a fervent supporter of Obama. The Clintons, much as I enjoy the fun, carry too much baggage. McCain, for all his energy, is the same old same old, with an emphasis on the old; some of his speeches come across like Reagan in his later years, rambling, anything but crisp.

Two Syrian-Americans who were part of the discussion were amazed that people here were so informed about the primaries compared to the general level of awareness in the USA. Point is, who the next President is matters enormously to the future of this region. People here care, because they are fed up with the problems, and look to the US finally to take on the role it should be playing, to stop painting the picture solely in black and white, to ask intelligent questions, to talk with rather than talking at, and to look at and understand the picture impartially in its true complexity. Maybe, just maybe....


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